Director: Ryan White
In February 2017, the first son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was assassinated in plain view at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. One of the world’s most dangerous poisons, a VX nerve agent, was rubbed onto his face and eyes, killing him within an hour of seeking medical attention. The two assassins, both young women, were captured on CCTV applying the toxin with their bare hands, but when they were arrested days later, they were baffled at the crime they were being charged with. Looking at the video evidence and the politically charged context around the murder victim, it seems impossible that these were ignorant to the significance of their actions in the airport. Did they really not know what they were doing?
It’s this impossibility that is investigated by Assassins, the new investigative documentary by Ryan White. White has had experience covering high-stakes court cases with the Emmy-nominated The Case Against 8, and has previously used the medium of documentary filmmaking to question the mainstream narrative around investigations with the Netflix miniseries ‘The Keepers’. With Assassins, we see his obvious talents at building an engaging narrative, even if the unpeeling of the bizarre and unsettling story behind the assassination feels less surgical and heart-wrenching than it could be.
We’re pulled into a web of deceit from the opening moments. An unnamed friend of Indonesian assassin Siti Aisyah tells us, “We couldn’t believe she murdered someone the next morning.” It definitely feels melodramatic, but it’s the appropriate way to frame the dramatic question at play – how did two ordinary women transform into political assassins? The story takes us from the murder, shown in grainy CCTV footage, to journalists explaining its context in North Korea. Seeing how the tightly wound Malaysian officials behave in the aftermath of the assassination makes it clear that achieving justice is even more complicated than convicting the assassins.
As the film progresses, White makes a pointed effort to up the emotional stakes by delving into the separate but fatally linked journeys of Siti and the other suspect, Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong. They both meet characters that employ them in manipulative schemes that lead towards the assassination, and it’s uncomfortable to watch Siti and Doan’s aspirations for personal freedom being exploited by a duplicitous group of men. Siti and Doan’s insecurities are preyed upon through the text messages of their handlers, and although the details of the assassination plot sometimes seem increasingly bizarre, White anchors the story through the audience’s deep sympathy for the abuse this pair are suffering.
While the murder is initially shown through CCTV, it’s not the only recovered footage used to tell the story. Siti and Doan documented themselves, their actions and locations through social media posts, which only confuses the idea that these were willing, trained assassins. Would two killers wittingly post every place they went leading up to their crime? This footage is always grainy and lo-fi, which adds to the film’s sinister, unsettling tone. Like the case the film is investigating, nothing is completely clear and wholly visible.
When the recovered footage is too limited, White uses other means to make his arguments. The assassination plays out in digital recreations of the airport’s CCTV footage that breaks down the movements not only of the assassins and the victim, but the watchful eyes and slinking retreats of Siti and Doan’s manipulators. Other visual storytelling tools, however, are less effective. White overuses B-roll footage of public spaces, of shopping malls and airports, and it’s unclear what effect he’s intending with its repeated use. Is he saying that any of these unsuspecting shoppers and pedestrians could be ensnared in a scheme like Siti and Doan were? If he is, it’s not a point made with much conviction.
While White’s filmmaking talents mean his telling of an intriguing real-life story is always engaging, there are notable instances where a stronger narrative focus would help illuminate a deeper commentary. We find out that Siti and Doan were tricked into thinking they were taking part in a series of staged pranks that would be filmed and disseminated online, with the resulting virality of the clips bringing them fame. The insidious and invasive nature of online prank culture has been spreading uncontrolled for a number of years. Obviously staged stunts of men making women uncomfortable under the guise of being funny or charming will rack up millions of views on YouTube, implicitly supporting invading the personal boundaries of strangers for fun. The idea that this culture was so popular and accepted that it was adopted by a totalitarian regime as a front for a political assassination is completely insane, but Assassins neglects to investigate this issue much, save for the occasional joke about how unfunny the pranks were.
While it’s not the most thorough or incisive investigation of the subject matter, what saves Assassins from mediocrity is how it conveys the deep sadness at the heart of the story. Siti and Doan’s naivety was taken advantage of by people who had no compassion or sympathy for the consequences of their machinations. The sentimentality the film takes in its closing sequences feels a little out of joint with the unsettling feel of the rest of the film, but it still manages to be affecting. Siti tells us of her days spent staring out her prison window wondering, “will I ever see the sky again in all its vastness?” But you get the impression Siti won’t be able to see anything in the same way as before. She’s now too aware of the darkness that people are capable of.
Written by Rory Doherty
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